Like sleepy sardines in a can, we are squeezed tight onto the shuttle bus at Lisbon airport.
We’re all bound for Paris and many of us aren’t quite awake yet, already looking forward to an airborne nap. While the silent majority has tacitly agreed it is too early for language, one man is berating his wife for spending too long in the duty free shop.
Early mornings don’t agree with Monsieur whose underpants are clearly in a twist, much to the dismay of the assembled passengers. The mild-mannered Portuguese try to ignore him while we French are so mortified to be so poorly represented we don’t know what to do with ourselves.
While both cultures have a tendency to express opinions passionately, one has to be unusually motivated to do so at the crack of dawn.
What’s more, the scene is absurd since the bus hasn’t departed yet and passengers are still boarding, proof that Madame’s fondness for Portuguese souvenirs has had no impact whatsoever on the punctuality of this flight.
In fact, no one cares about what she got up to but Monsieur wants everyone to know and is so loud he’s impossible to ignore.
Monsieur is adamant something has gone terribly wrong and proceeds to outline what and how in minute detail at the top of his voice.
While the non-French speakers shoot him sideways glances before tuning him out, I bite my tongue hard until I taste blood.
This man will not go unheard and is soon high on himself, tripping to the sound of his own voice as his tirade picks up speed.
Monsieur will not shut up.
Granted, a 6:40AM flight isn’t the ideal start to the day for most people. But the last thing you need when you aren’t sufficiently caffeinated yet is ad hoc Gallic cockiness. If we French enjoy a worldwide reputation as contrarians and complainers, Monsieur here embodies fury.
I glower at him for a while but he is oblivious, a male asserting superiority over his mate in front of a crowd. Much as I would like to stun him into silence with the least amount of words, I can’t decide what language to blurt them out in for maximum effect nor what register to employ. Concerned faces around me indicate that no one else can figure what to do either.
Madame remains impassible, a stoic Joan of Ark on the pyre of linguistic humiliation, head held up high.
As Monsieur unpacks a catalog of complaints dating back to previous trips, Madame is poise and self-control incarnate. But for a couple of bons mots that cut through his man-child tantrum, she refuses to dignify Monsieur’s impassioned screed with a reply.
“Indeed, there is a certain level of incompatibility,” she concedes and I cannot help but admire her aplomb.
But of course Monsieur plays deaf and keeps ranting.
I feel for Madame. If men like Monsieur still remind women of their subservient place every single day, doing so on International Women’s Day is unforgivable.
Not that I’m naive enough to believe that dedicating one day a year to women can ever make up for inequalities between sexes. But today of all days a modicum of extra respect wouldn’t have gone amiss. Plus pleading ignorance is futile; International Women’s Day signs are everywhere.
If Madame spent as long shopping as Monsieur alleges, he must have had plenty of time to read them.
Although French president Macron’s government has made equality a priority, the message hasn’t hit home yet.
For the first time ever, France has a Minister of State for Gender Equality and the Fight against Discrimination as well as parity in government. Two years in, there’s still a long way to go but at least we’ve got laws against street harassment now.
Not that France is a pioneer; In Portugal, verbal sexual abuse has been a crime since 2015.
Although they behave like old people feminism might have passed by, Madame and Monsieur are much younger. And there’s a disturbing air of routine about this scene, as if it were a play and they were reprising their roles. Madame has the vacant look of someone who has heard it all before and Monsieur has the entitled attitude of someone who has done it all before.
Being taken to task in front of assembled strangers in a confined space is humiliating, shameful, and dispiriting for anyone.
Manners, mutual respect, and common courtesy aren’t gender-specific but human values. And they make society functional even though men like Monsieur still dispense with them altogether. Instead, they expect women to pick up the slack and lead by example, which Madame is doing in a roundabout way.
This is what women do. We endure, we nurture, we try and make equality a reality while many men stand back, belittling our efforts and laughing at us. After all, isn’t it in their interest to maintain the status quo rather than engage in a soupçon of introspection?
It is easier to undermine than to collaborate; it is easier to pretend you know it all than to admit you haven’t a clue; it is easier to despise than to respect.
It has always been that way so why should it ever change?
And yet, equality isn’t about depriving one side of status to hand it over to the other but about acknowledging that all humans are the same.
Once we accept this, there’s no use for power dynamics anymore and no one needs feel threatened by a fellow human.
So how about asking ourselves what we stand to gain if we all join forces rather than what we stand to lose if we don’t push back?
I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.